After the MMS fiasco, Abhi and Pragya came to an understanding that they would try to continue their marriage in name only until Daadi's health stabilized. The divorce had never been finalized so in essence the only thing that had changed was that now at least they were civil to each other. However, Abhi still kept his relationship with Tanu, and Pragya tried to make peace with the idea that even though she loved him, they were simply not meant to be.
The damage between Abhi and Aaliya was significant, and two months later Abhi still wasn't talking to her. But Pragya was still trying to bridge the gap. She was appalled with all that Aaliya had done, but as an older sibling her instinct was always to try to help her misguided relative, and she didn't like that Abhi's response had been to shutdown and push Aaliya away.
Aaliya had resisted Pragya's overtures at first but slowly she had accepted the support and encouragement Pragya persistently offered. It helped that Tanu's siding with Abhi meant a permanent rift between her and Aaliya, too. So Pragya and Aaliya were not quite friends and nowhere close to being sisters, but finally Aaliya had a positive relationship with her bhabhi and Pragya did not live in fear of her nanad.
Pragya went back to work when the fall semester started, and soon she fell into a routine of teaching in the day time, attending to Daadi in the evenings, and sometimes chatting with Aaliya briefly at night. She didn't see much of Abhi except as they both got ready in the mornings, and sometimes in the evenings when he came home in time for dinner with the family.
Otherwise, they were apart all day, and he was out late most nights. She didn't know if he was always with Tanu. She had decided it would be easier for her not to ask, and he didn't tell.
One Friday afternoon, Pragya was packing up at the end of her office hours when she got a surprise phone call from her old friend Raghav. She was excited to hear from him as it had been a year and a half since they'd last met up, but her excitement soon turned to dismay as he started to wheedle her into accompanying to him to a party that very night.
"Please doll, you have to come with me. I need a plus one and I don't know anyone else in town."
"Raghav, this is not done yaar. You don't visit for so many months, and then all of a sudden you're demanding favours?"
"But I can always count on you, naa? Please come. This way we can hang out. I'll be tied up with business all weekend and then I'm flying back on Monday, so if you don't come I won't even get to see you!"
"Not fair! Are you so busy that you can't even spare me half an hour for coffee? Wow, what a life, Mr. Businessman of the Year!"
"I knew you'd never stop mocking me for winning that award. But you know half an hour would not be enough to catch up, right? This way we'll get to spend the whole evening together. And the food is supposed to be great too - it's at the ballroom of The Ritz."
"The Ritz! You mean this is a gala? Raghav, I can't go last minute to something like this! You know women spend the whole morning at the parlor before this kind of event? And I don't even have anything to wear!"
"Babe, you're not going to leave me hanging for such a silly reason as that are you? Just throw on a sari and wear your gorgeous smile, that'll be enough."
"Uff. And to think you're supposed to be some kind of playboy. Women actually eat up those kinds of lines from you, don't they?"
"Every woman in the world but you. Because you were always meant for someone else, and you knew it. How are things with your husband by the way?"
It took Pragya a moment to respond. She wasn't going to tell him the truth - she wasn't sharing this pain with anyone - but for a moment she almost wanted to. But she ignored that feeling and managed to say, "Oh, good, you know. He's busy."
"So he won't mind if I borrow you for the evening, right?" Raghav prompted, and she could perfectly picture the cheeky grin on his face as he spoke.
Pragya laughed, both at her friend's sweet teasing and at the idea that Abhi would notice her absence. "No. So I guess now you're going to tell me I have no excuse."
"Exactly! So I'll meet you there at 8, ok?"
Pragya sighed heavily. "Ohh-kay," she finally conceded. "But you owe me. And next time you come to Mumbai you better build a whole day for me into your calendar, got it Mr. Chopra?"
"It's a deal," Raghav agreed, and she laughed again as she heard the relief in his voice.
It was already almost 5pm, and Pragya was completely flustered trying to figure out how she could get ready for Raghav's gala event on such short notice. When she got home, she went straight to Daadi to coax her into eating dinner. By the time that was done and Daadi was comfortably settled in for the night with Indu Daasi to attend her, it was after 6.
Pragya hurriedly searched through her closet, but she couldn't find anything suitable to wear. Raghav had texted her that the gala had a black and gold theme, but there was simply nothing in her wardrobe that would fit the occasion. At this late hour it didn't seem likely that she could go shopping either, and frankly with all the stress of her day, she didn't want to.
She was considering calling Bulbul and begging her to bring something from home when she finally remembered that her fashionplate nanad was sure to have something of the right colours and quality. She and Aaliya were not the same size but Pragya was desperate enough not to care, especially as the clock inched closer to seven.
Luckily Aaliya was home, and when Pragya explained her situation, a sudden spark of delight lit up the younger girl's face. "You know what, Bhabhi?" she drawled slowly, looking abstractly into the distance for a moment. "I think I have just the thing!" Then she made her way to her closet, and from deep in the back she pulled out a wrapped package.
She opened it for Pragya, pulling out a beautiful designer anarkali. The crisp black net kameez was trimmed with heavy gold and maroon embroidery, and it looked like exactly what Pragya needed.
Pragya was about to grab Aaliya in a hug of excited thanks, but then she noticed that the kameez was sleeveless, and that the vertical open neckline cut rather deeply. It wouldn't reveal anything but it was not a style that she was used to. She also felt a little unsure about the short mandarin collar - that always looked stunning on Aaliya but Pragya had never worn a top like that before.
"Oh, Aaliya, it's lovely," Pragya admitted. "But I don't think I can wear that."
"Of course you can!" Aaliya insisted. "And it will fit you, too. Andy had my measurements wrong when he made this and I never sent it back. Please just go put it on, Bhabhi!"
Pragya was reluctant, but considering the advancing hour and her lack of other options, she did as she was told. She was happy to find that the outfit did fit her well. Not exactly as if it was made for her, but close enough.
When she came out, Aaliya actually clapped in appreciation. "Bhabhi, this is great! Please tell me you have some plain black pumps you can wear? I don't think our shoe sizes are similar enough for me to lend you mine."
Pragya stared at herself in the mirror, fidgeting with the kameez even though it didn't need any adjustments. "Yes, I have a pair of heels that will match," she confirmed. "But I don't know about jewelry. Do you think I can wear just regular jhumkas?"
"To a gala at the Ritz? No way! Hang on, I know what you should wear."
Aaliya turned to her jewelry case and pulled out a velvet box. She brought it to Pragya and showed her a stunning pair of chandelier-style diamond earrings.
"Oh my goodness!" Pragya breathed. "Aaliya, these are - wow!" She was not usually impressed by jewelry, but the idea of wearing such extravagant and gorgeous earrings overwhelmed her.
"Which is exactly why you have to wear them," Aaliya said. "They belonged to my mother, actually. So as her bahu you should definitely take a chance to wear them."
"Heirlooms?" Pragya said in wonder. This was the first time in the six months of her marriage that anyone had mentioned anything about Abhi and Aaliya's mother, and suddenly she wanted to forget about the night's plans and just learn about the saas she would never meet from the daughter that had been left behind.
"Yes. So try them on now!"
Pragya was almost afraid to touch them, so Aaliya carefully put them on her. Once she was wearing them, she had to agree that they were perfect for the outfit.
By then it was already seven thirty, so Pragya let Aaliya quickly do her hair and makeup. Aaliya pulled Pragya's hair into a simple chignon updo with a few loose curls, so as to show off the mandarin collar and the long earrings. She kept the makeup light, applying just enough to smooth out Pragya's complexion.
However, she insisted on a touch of drama with the eye makeup, and blended three shades to create a gorgeous smoky effect. Pragya liked it so much that she didn't even argue when Aaliya insisted that she had to ditch her glasses in favour of contacts for the gala.
Pragya went to her room to make the switch, and also took a quick moment to trade her long everyday mangal sutra for the shorter one that went better with the neckline of her borrowed anarkali. Just before she left the room, she applied the slightest touch of sindoor at her forehead, opting for a more subtle look than usual to go with her elegant clothes.
Aaliya approved of her final look and told her to take some pictures with this mystery friend she'd never mentioned before. Pragya gave her a quick hug and thanked her for her help, and then finally she was on her way.
Pragya texted Raghav on the way to the hotel, and to her annoyance he replied that he was going to be a little late. She wasn't sure if she'd even be allowed into the event without him there, and she started to worry about where she would wait for him.
But then Raghav sent another message instructing her to ask for one of the organizers, his friend Anushka. Pragya was relieved to have a contact person, and as her car finally arrived at the venue, she was smiling in happy anticipation of what should be a fun evening. Just as soon as Raghav got there, everything would be in place.
When she met Anushka inside the hall, Pragya was surprised to realize that they already knew each other. Anushka had been one of the guests at Daadi's Diwali party. She and her husband were Abhi's friends, and they'd both been playing cards with him during the Lakshmi puja at that party.
"Hello, Pragya!" Anushka said in obvious surprise, but with a warm smile. "It's great to see you!"
"Hi! You're organizing this? It's amazing," Pragya complimented her. "I feel a bit like I'm gatecrashing. I'm supposed to be meeting Raghav Chopra here, he told me to wait with you until he gets here."
"Raghav Chopra?" Anushka repeated in confusion. "You're here with him?"
"Yes, we're old friends, and he needed a last minute plus one," Pragya explained.
"Oh," Anushka said with a smile and a nod. There was something a little off about her tone, but Pragya was too distracted to notice. She was looking around the grand hall and noticing the clothes and jewellery worn by other women, and she was very glad that Aaliya had been able to help her. On her own, she would've been completely out of her element.
Pragya's phone beeped, and when she checked it there was a message from Raghav. It told her to turn around because he was he was right behind her, and sure enough when she turned he was walking towards her.
"Raghav!" she greeted him excitedly. She pulled him into a hug as he drew even with her, and he returned the hug with warmth.
When they pulled apart, Raghav made a point of surveying her from head to toe, and let out a low whistle. "And you said you had nothing to wear? You look dynamite," he said with an approving grin.
Pragya blushed and smacked his shoulder. "Don't try that stuff with me. I know you're just setting up a joke so you can start calling me 'phataka' again."
"And there, you just saved me the trouble. This is why we're friends. Thank you for coming, Phataka!" Raghav smirked, and then laughed when Pragya playfully smacked him again.
Anushka cleared her throat, and they both turned to face her. Anushka said, "I'm so glad you could make it on short notice, Raghav. And thank you for bringing Pragya, it's great to see her here."
"Oh, do you two know each other?" Raghav asked in surprise.
Before Anushka could answer, one of the event staff called her away to deal with something. It was left for Pragya to explain about the connection through Abhi, but beyond a simple summary, Raghav wasn't interested.
He apologetically explained to Pragya that they would have to schmooze and network for the cocktail hour, but then they could properly catch up during dinner. He gave her a brief summary of who he expected to meet and why he'd been invited to this particular gala, and with that in mind Pragya felt prepared to help him out.
They made their way around the room, chatting with different people who knew Raghav through business. A few faces looked familiar to Pragya and she thought some of them might be Abhi's industry friends, but there wasn't anyone she knew by name. If any of them recognized her, they didn't say anything. Raghav introduced her to everyone as "my dear friend, Pragya Arora," and everyone accepted that easily enough.
She got a lot of compliments on her anarkali, and she took the chance to talk up Andy's talents. The designer was firmly Abhi's friend but he'd been nice to her in their few odd interactions, so she was happy to send business his way.
Pragya and Raghav had been socializing for nearly an hour when a sudden buzz took over the room. Many heads were turning to the door, and as she politely listened to Raghav's conversation with a couple of potential investors, she followed the direction of the crowd's gaze. However, there were too many people between her and the entrance, and because she couldn't see anything, she returned her attention to the small of group of people she was standing with.
The conversation was wrapping up, and finally the investors shook hands with Raghav, nodded at Pragya, and moved away.
Raghav turned to Pragya and gave an exaggerated sigh. "Whew! I think we finally touched base with everyone. How about we head to our table now?"
"Sure," Pragya agreed. "But is Mr. Businessman of the Year so easily tired?" she teased.
"Ha bloody ha," Raghav retorted. "Whatever, Phataka. All you had to do was stand there and look pretty. I'm the one who had to talk my head off."
"Aww, poor baby," Pragya mocked, and they both laughed. They had to maneuver their way way around a knot of people, so Raghav guided her with a hand on her back.
An older gentleman approached them, and Raghav and Pragya stopped to meet him. Raghav's arm slipped around Pragya's waist, but it was a friendly embrace and she didn't think anything of it.
It may have helped give their visitor the wrong idea, however, as the first thing he said when he made it to them was, "Raghav you sly dog! You never told me you were getting married. Introduce me to your wife."
Raghav laughed in response. Pragya would have, too, but just as the older man made his loud statement, her eyes finally landed on the new attraction that had the room buzzing.
It was Rockstar Abhi, with supermodel Tanu by his side.
And though the rest of the room was looking at them, Abhi was looking at her.
And he was close enough to hear what had been said.
"No, no," Raghav clarified to his business contact. "This is Pragya, one of my dearest friends." He slid his hand up from her waist to her shoulder and he smiled at her briefly before joking with the other man, "We're not married. Not because I didn't ask, but because she wouldn't have me."
Pragya noticed that Abhi's eyes narrowed at that, and she wished that Raghav had found something better to joke about. The last thing she wanted was yet another misunderstanding with her blockheaded husband about her supposed entanglements with rich, unmarried men.
Then Raghav's acquaintance claimed her attention, saying in a fatherly way, "Well, you make a pretty bride, my dear." He gestured to her traditional clothing and added, "You have that newly married look about you."
"Err, thank you," Pragya said, accepting what seemed to be meant as a compliment.
For the next few minutes, Pragya did her best to play her part in the conversation, giving polite answers when asked and making agreeable noises when Raghav or the older gentleman made an interesting point. However, the whole time she was aware of Abhi's eyes on her, and she was starting to feel a chilly tension under skin.
For the first time that night she really wished that the kameez had sleeves after all, and she lamented that the narrow dupatta that came with the anarkali was more for show than coverage.
Finally Raghav's business acquaintance saw someone else he wanted to talk to and moved on. Raghav turned to Pragya with a grin and brought his arm around her shoulder again, starting to guide her to their table so that they could be seated for dinner. But he noticed right away that she was tense, and out of concern he stopped walking and faced her.
He tipped up her chin so that she had to meet his eyes and asked, "Hey, what happened? Is something wrong?"
Pragya knew Abhi was still watching, and she couldn't quite hide her flinch as she stepped back from Raghav. "No, it's just -"
Raghav noticed the direction of her hesitant gaze, and before she could continue her stumbling explanation, he turned and saw Abhi. It took him a moment to understand what he was looking at, but then his eyes widened and he turned back to Pragya with a frown.
"Wait, is that your husband? Who is that hanging off his arm?" Raghav asked, and already Pragya could read unwelcome suspicion in his eyes.
Considering that all four of them would be stuck at the party for the next few hours, Pragya decided there was no point trying to cover the truth from Raghav. So she told him simply, "That's Tanu, she's...his girlfriend."